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Miljenko ‘Mike’ Grgich
Celebrating 35 Years of the Man and His Legend
“The American Dream came true for me in Napa Valley…That is how I feel about it.,” explained famed winemaker Mike Grgich.
“It” being the sweeping success story of man triumphing over Eastern-block Communism and global migration only to win the most celebrated wine competition ever – the 1976 Paris Tasting – and placing California wine squarely on the global enological throne as King.
No small feat – any of it – so you can imagine my surprise to find this Napa titan a fit, twinkle-eyed 89 years old, happily signing autographs, taking pictures and even pouring wine to unwitting customers behind the bar in his universally acclaimed Grgich Hills Estate Winery.
Born into a winemaking family living under Communism in Croatia, Miljenko “Mike” Grgich was one of 11 children tending vineyards from a very young age. His mother weaned him from breast milk at 2-1/2 years and “my next beverage, from that point forward, was wine… Wine is so important for the whole family,” continued Mike. “It is tradition.”
It took the covert whispers of his college professor, Professor Hebrang (who had just returned from a sabbatical trip to study California wines and vines) to inspire young Mike to think big. In the rare absence of police monitors, Professor Hebrang whispered “California is a Paradise.” And, Mike was hooked.
In August 1954, he literally walked out of Croatia carrying just one small suitcase with two degrees in winemaking and business, ten books on winemaking, a clean beret and US $32 between the soles of his shoe. It took him four years to arrive in West Germany, immigrate to Canada by 1958 and later board a Greyhound bus to California. He arrived at 10:15 p.m. on August 15, 1958 in St. Helena, California holding the promise of a job at Souverain Cellars.
The Souverain position came with a small cottage that Mike was emotionally overwhelmed to see surrounded by Zinfandel vineyards – the same vines he knew as a boy. The vines, to Mike, were old friends and “I felt not lonesome anymore.”
Mike’s subsequent meteoric rise in winemaking is stuff of legend. Like Henry Ford or Andrew Carnegie, Mike worked his way up from humble beginnings to be a keystone of his industry based on luck, ambition and determination. Following one vintage at Souverain, Mike moved onto Christian Brothers (now the Culinary Institute of America) followed by nine years working alongside legendary Russian winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu Vineyards.
In 1968, a mere ten years after stepping off that Greyhound bus, Mike became Chief Enologist at the most innovative winery of the time, the Robert Mondavi Winery. “In 1969, I made my very first Cabernet for Robert,” Mike recalls by fusing cutting-edge techniques that nodded to his traditional winemaking heritage. Mike listened intently to the teaching of the master and took to heart “Robert’s preaching … that one day, we’d be making wines every bit as good as France.”
By 1972, Mike joined Chateau Montelena as winemaker and limited partner. There, he produced the epic 1973 Chardonnay that knocked the French out of first position in the most famous, groundbreaking, blind tasting competition in Paris, 1976. That day, his 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay scored not just the best Chardonnay but the very best wine in the world.
“I was nobody really until that point,” says Grgich. Jim Barrett, Montelena owner, showed Mike the winning telegram but it took Frank Prial, a reporter from the New York Times to fly out to Napa and truly explain the magnitude of the win. Then, Mike remembers, “It was like being born again.”
Within a single year, he joined forces with Austin Hills, of Hills Brother Coffee Co., and broke ground on his childhood dream – a California winery of his very own – Grgich Hills Estate. In each corner of the new winery, Mike buried one of his four top bottles produced respectively at Souverain, Beaulieu Vineyards, Robert Mondavi and Chateau Montelena.
Mike did not let his fame get the best of him. Instead, he channeled his focus into producing smaller and smaller batches of only the finest quality Napa Valley wines. Mike worked to purchase prime Napa vineyards to control every step on winemaking – from vine to bottle. Today, all Grgich Hills wines are produced from 100% Estate vineyards and represent some of the finest terroir and microclimates found in Napa Valley.
Even now in 2012, Mike and his team still work to carefully produce artisan wine each year. “With too large a production, you can’t specialize,” says Mike. “The rule exists that limited production allows you, the Winemaker, to be an artist.”
Today, Mike still revels among his vines and works with daughter Violet and nephew Ivo Jeramaz on each vintage produced at Grgich Hills Estate. And on very special occasions, he breaks out a bottle of that 1973 Chardonnay to savor with family. To Mike, the old wines taste better and better as “Good wine and good ladies only improve with maturity.”
Open Daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
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